Call him the rock star of astrophysicists. With more Twitter followers than Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger or Robin Thicke (nearly 2 million!), Neil deGrasse Tyson is the most famous professional stargazer since Carl Sagan. So it’s fitting that he’s hosting the reboot of Sagan’s acclaimed 1980 PBS series Cosmos, subtitled A Spacetime Odyssey, which premieres March 9 on Fox and March 10 on National Geographic Channel (9/8c). (Super fans can catch a full re-airing of the original 13-episode series on NGC, Saturday from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.)
The new series, executive produced by the unlikely pair of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, brings the whimsical exploration of the universe into the 21st century with fresh special effects, a sleeker, sexier Spaceship of the Imagination and, of course, Tyson’s infectious enthusiasm for science. We spoke with the 56-year-old director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium about social media, the show and sunrises…
“Some people come up and say, ‘Oh, are you that guy? Can we take a picture?’ But the predominant example is, ‘Tell me more about that black hole you were talking about the other day.’ I’m just feeding their hunger.”
Were you an early adopter of Twitter?
No. I was, ‘Why am I doing this?’ initially, and then I realized I have random fun thoughts every day that I would just keep to myself. Now I share them.
Your Twitter following is huge.
I think it’s amazing that a scientist, whether or not it’s me, could have that level of following, that level of recognition. I’m I.D.’d by a stranger on the street about fifty or a hundred times a day, so the big transition for me was realizing I have to leave in the morning a little more groomed than usual now, but I don’t mind that. It’s life’s overhead that I now have to bear. Some people come up and say, “Oh, are you that guy? Can we take a picture?” But the predominant example is, “Tell me more about that black hole you were talking about the other day.” I’m just feeding their hunger. At the end of the day, I’m a conduit for their access to the universe. I’m not their destination.
But you’re the go-to guy when it comes to space experts.
I live in New York City, near the news‑gathering headquarters of all networks, CNN. And if the universe flinches, as it does every now and then, I get a phone call. I don’t get big‑headed about that because it’s really a cheap date for them. They can send up an action cam to have the video that afternoon. If it’s a national story and they say, “We just landed on Mars. Tell us about it,” I will say, “Did you film the engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab, or wherever, to get what they had to say about this first? If not, I have nothing to share.” So I’ve got this relationship with them now where they actually go to the person who busted their ass for however many years to get the scientific results, and then they come to me and I tie a bow on it so that at the end of the day, I am enhancing the science that has already happened, not becoming the science that has already happened. I think that is an important role that I have come to play in the moving frontier of scientific discovery.
But you’re at the center of it in Cosmos. What makes you a good host?
I think my persistent awareness and exposure to the public gives me some sensitivity to how people think and what they care about and why they care about it. For example, the Tweets that I post, it’s an instantaneous snapshot of the neurosynaptic moment that is going on in all the minds of all the followers as they respond to that one Tweet. I get to see, “Oh, they feel that way about this” or “This made them laugh” or “This made them sad.”
How does Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey compare to Carl Sagan’s original?
If Cosmos were a traditional documentary, what you would expect of it is that you would learn the latest discoveries, a page torn out of the latest research papers. And that serves a role in the universe of documentaries. But what enabled Cosmos to transcend time, to be still a vibrant show to watch 35 years later, as we would hope and expect the current show to be 35 years from now, is that you don’t chase the very frontier. You pull back a little, and you find out where to stand so that the science is not just the voyeurism of the frontier, but in what ways does the science affect us psychologically, physically, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually? And so Cosmos is primarily a story of why science matters. Yes, there is dark matter, dark energy. Yeah, we’ve got eight planets instead of nine. There’s plenty of science that’s new, but the goal is not to show new science here. The goal is to show why this new understanding of the world continues to affect us deeply as an individual, as a nation, as a species. Cosmos tells the story of the universe from the beginning to the distant future.
Does your enthusiasm for science extend to other things?
I think too many of us forgot how to be excited about what we love. You reach a point where you end up taking it for granted, and I never take anything for granted. This morning’s sunrise was beautiful and yes, I know that the atmosphere bends the sunlight as it reaches me, so the sun has not yet risen when you see it rise. But I’m thinking about this and saying, “How cool!”